Egypt’s FM in Damascus: Sisism supports Asadism

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Monday, February 27, was the first visit of an Egyptian foreign minister to Damascus since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Minister Sameh Shoukry arrived and described his visit: “To convey a message of solidarity from Egypt”.

According to what has been announced, the purpose of the visit was to support Syria and Turkey after the devastating earthquake that occurred on February 6 and caused the death of 45 thousand of victims. The tour includes Turkey, and Shoukry carries the message from Cairo: “Egypt, as government and people, can never be late in supporting its brothers.” This tour not only includes the first visit since the severance of relations between Cairo and the Bashar al-Assad regime during the reign of former President Mohamed Morsi, but it is also the first visit to Ankara since Presidents Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan shook hands in Doha, at the opening of the World Cup last November.

This visit comes while there is an international and Arab boycott of Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the beginning of his fierce repression of protesters who demonstrated against him during the Arab Spring and with Western adherence to the need to prevent any normalisation of relations between Bashar al-Assad, or an attempt to maintain him again in the international community, after so many crimes. According to UN estimates, the victims of the massive massacre committed by his regime against Syrians were more than 350,000 people until September 2021. Even the League of Arab States, one of the least effective regional organisations, still insists on suspending “Syria” from it. This international and Arab boycott was recently not respected by the UAE, as it normalised its relations with the Bashar al-Assad regime. It began with the reopening of the UAE embassy in the Syrian capital in December 2018. Then diversified normalisation steps followed, most notably a visit by UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed to Damascus in November 2021. Then, in March 2022, it was the first visit of Bashar al-Assad to a country other than the countries that supported him since the beginning of the civil war.

The political exploitation of the disaster

With a smiling face, Bashar al-Assad inspected the devastation caused by the earthquake in the Syrian cities under his control. Commentators interpreted this smile as a rejoicing because some of the northern regions destroyed by the earthquake were outside his control. But the smile is most likely the happiness of the favourable opportunity to recycle himself as the “President of Syria” and the chance of several Arab countries wishing for him to return. Telegrams of condolence and communications were sent to the al-Assad regime. It was also his opportunity to put pressure on the West by using the humanitarian catastrophe and the suffering of citizens as a result of it and portraying himself as a legitimate president by reusing the discourses that have diminished in recent years, as he allowed the entry of aid. According to Syrian activists, a part of the aid that reached Damascus has been seized.

The Egyptian government didn’t hesitate to try to help the Syrian regime, as it seized the opportunity to use the situation politically, as the Syrian regime did in the first place. The first step was a brief statement of condolence from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, in which it said: “We express our sincere condolences and solidarity with both Turkey and Syria for the victims of the devastating earthquake.” Then The Egyptian Foreign Minister held a phone call with his counterpart in the government of Bashar al-Assad. Also, under presidential directives, Cairo sent military planes loaded with aid to Damascus, in addition to other assistance to the northern regions of Syria controlled by the Ankara-backed opposition, while allowing the arrival of an Egyptian medical delegation via Turkish territory.

Then the support evolved into a direct call, the first of its kind, between Bashar al-Assad and Sisi, in which the latter affirmed: “We confirm Egypt’s solidarity with Syria and its brotherly people in this painful affliction, referring to directives to provide all possible aid and relief assistance in this regard to Syria.” This call was prepared for it two years before the disaster, and the opportunity to show the excellent coordination between the two regimes came to the public. Later, during the presence of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in the Emirates at the Summit of Governments, and in light of Cairo and Abu Dhabi’s agreement to float the Assad regime, he insisted on helping Syria, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, President of the UAE, spoke of increasing the aid provided to Damascus.

Between the two presidents

“What happens in other countries, if it happens in Egypt, will not benefit us or others,” said the Egyptian president, referring to Syria in September 2021, as he repeated it in different forms. Thus, Al-Sisi does not wish for any opposition or attempt to recycle the revolution against his regime because he believes that the results of that revolution will be what happened in Syria. The Egyptian government has helped Syria since the beginning. Egypt sent weapons and ammunition to the Syrian government. It even wanted to help with heavy equipment, political support in the Security Council, sporadic intelligence visits and joint coordination. It reached the point that Iran asked Egypt to attend one of the negotiation conferences in September 2016 in Switzerland.

This approach and adherence to the continuation of Bashar al-Assad personally in power were central points of contention between Riyadh and Cairo. Riyadh sees Bashar as a representative of the Iranians in the region and an opportunity to expand the influence of its militias in the area, while the governments of Egypt and the UAE see him as an “Arab dictator who deserves to remain in power”. It is not a symbol of their orientation, but it is the most important symbol of the defeat of the Arab Spring. Here, it should be noted that there is communication and coordination at the highest level between Bashar al-Assad and Israel, despite the latter’s strikes against what it calls “the positioning of the Iranians in Syria.”

Turkey on the line

Ankara and Abu Dhabi have had regular and strong relations recently in light of the economic crisis that Turkey is suffering from. There is an excellent rapprochement between UAE and Israel after their normalisation agreement. At the same time, during negotiations with Ankara on the normalisation of relations, one of Cairo’s demands was the withdrawal from the northern Syrian territories, which it stressed as one of its conditions for accepting this normalisation. Therefore, it is natural that the following visit of the Egyptian minister is to implement the plan of his country’s government to help Bashar al-Assad again. To Ankara, the opportunity is entirely favourable, as the earthquake struck the two neighbouring countries, with the real intention of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to re-normalise relations with the Syrian regime. In meetings and contacts at the level of intelligence and defence ministers to foreign ministers, which resulted in talks about close meetings between presidents. It may be strange for Cairo and Damascus to get close to Ankara, one of the country’s most hostile to them in the past.

In the press conference held between the Turkish Foreign Minister and his Egyptian counterpart in Adana, the first said: “We are opening new pages in our relations with Egypt.” He considered Shoukry’s visit very important and has many meanings, as they discussed: “We are taking steps to improve and develop relations between Turkey and Egypt, in the interest of both parties, to achieve peace, development and stability in our region,” he said. Nothing is left but a clear Saudi position on an Arab region in which “Bashar al-Assad is back again.”